Tornado Season Tips

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U.S. citizens are no strangers to natural disasters. In spring and early summer, tornados are a major concern in certain parts of the country; most recently,  the states of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa, and  elsewhere were hit. Injuries and loss of life from disasters are common consequences of these catastrophes.

If I had to choose between being in the path of a hurricane or a tornado, the hurricane wins every time. With hurricanes, you get several days of warning that they’re coming; Tornadoes, however, are unpredictable and can form very quickly, making rapid action a matter of life and death.

In the aftermath of a tornado, the family medic may end up  treating significant traumatic injuries. It doesn’t end there, however.  Flooding may contaminate your water supplies and expose you to serious infectious disease.  Preparing to weather the storm safely will avoid major medical problems later on.


A tornado is a rotating column of air that contacts with both the earth’s surface and the thunderstorm (sometimes called a “supercell”) that spawned it. From a distance, you can tell a tornado usually by its appearance as a visible dark funnel with all sorts of flying debris in and around it.  Close up, they may be more difficult to see.

A tornado (also called a “twister”) may have winds of up to 300 miles per hour, which can make a hurricane seem like a light breeze. Twisters can travel for a number of miles before petering out and be accompanied by hail the size of golf balls. If you’re unlucky enough to have a tornado pass close by, it will emit a roaring sound that reminds you of a passing train.

NOTE: (I can tell you this is true by personal experience when I lost some roof tiles and some trees on my property some years ago. You never forget that sound).

There are almost a thousand tornadoes in the United States every year, more than are reported in any other country.  Most of these occur in Tornado Alley, an area that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and neighboring states.  There are exceptions: The one that struck my house developed all the way down in South Florida!


Tornadoes are categorized by something called the Fujita Scale, from level 0-5, based on the amount of damage caused. You can expect:

  • F0- Light: broken tree branches, mild structural damage, some trees uprooted
  • F1- Moderate: broken windows, small tree trunks broken, overturned mobile homes, destruction of carports or toolsheds, roof tiles missing
  • F2- Considerable: mobile homes destroyed, major structural damage to frame homes due to flying debris, some large trees snapped in half or uprooted
  • F3- Severe: Roofs torn from homes, small frame homes destroyed, most trees snapped and uprooted
  • F4- Devastating: strong structure building damaged or destroyed or lifted from foundations, cars lifted and blown away, even large debris airborne
  • F5- Incredible: larger building lifted from foundations, trees snapped, uprooted and debarked, multi-ton debris becomes airborne missiles

Although some places may have sirens or other methods of warning you of an approaching tornado, it is important to have a plan of your own to weather the storm.  This plan should extend to your entire family. Children should be taught where to find the medical kits and, if feasible, how to turn off gas and electricity.  Training loved ones in the use of a fire extinguisher and some training in the treatment of injuries would be highly useful as well.


If you see a twister funnel, take shelter immediately unless your residence is a mobile home. They are especially vulnerable to damage from the winds.  If there’s time, get to the nearest building that has a tornado shelter; underground shelters are best.

If you live in Tornado Alley, consider putting together your own underground shelter (check the link below). At the very least, find out your municipality’s tornado plan and shelter locations.  This goes for your kid’s school as well, as tornadoes may appear during school hours.

Here’s a link:

Unlike bunkers and other structures built for long-term protection, a tornado shelter has to provide safety for a short period of time.  As such, it doesn’t have to be very large; 8-10 square feet per person would be acceptable.  Despite this, be sure to consider ventilation and the comfort or special needs of those using the shelter.

If you don’t have a shelter, find a place in the house where family members can go if a tornado is headed your way. Basements, bathrooms, closets or inside rooms on the first floor are the best options. Stay away from rooms with windows, these can easily shatter from impact due to flying debris. For added protection, get under a heavy object such as a sturdy table.  Covering your body with a sleeping bag or mattress will provide an additional shield.  You might consider planning tornado drills; it’s a great way for the kids to know what to do by heart.


If you’re in a car and can drive to a shelter, do so. You might be hesitant to leave your vehicle, but remember that they can be easily tossed around by the winds; you may be safer if there’s a culvert or other protected area lower than the roadway. In town, though, leaving the car to enter a sturdy building is the most appropriate course of action. If there is no other option, your car may protect you from some of the flying debris.  Keep your seat beat on, put you head down below the level of the windows, and cover yourself with whatever’s available.


If you are caught outside when the tornado hits, stay away from wooded areas.  Torn branches and other debris become missiles, so an open field or ditch may be safer. Lying down flat in a low spot in the ground will give you some protection.  Make sure to cover your head if at all possible, even if it’s just with your hands.

If you have enough time, fill up your bathtub with water just in case; you’ll need one gallon of water per day for every member of your family.  I don’t have to tell you that you should have food and medical supplies stored up as well.

Armed with a plan of action, you’ll have a head start on weathering that storm. Make natural disasters just a bump in the road, not the end of the road, for your family.

Joe Alton MD

Dr. Alton

Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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